The Narcissism Epidemic (2009)

Jean M. Twenge and  W. Keith Campbell

Rating: 5/10

Overall, I had high expectations of this book.  After all, here were some PhDs looking into some of the things about American culture that I had been ruminating over for a few years now.  And overall, they touch on many of the facets that I expected: vanity, a sense of entitlement, materialism, and celebrity status.  They even came up with a few that I hadn’t considered—namely easy monetary credit and the role of religion and volunteerism.

Ultimately, however, the book fell short my expectations.  I found some of the methodology to be sloppy and even the definition of their main subject to be all-too encompassing.  The latter was particularly annoying as they just seemed to lump every ill of society under “narcissism” without allowing for a more nuanced (and probably accurate) use of the word.  And within each of those ills, they seemed to generalize the cases of narcissists to put everyone in the same boat (or at least attribute the motivations of narcissists to everyone).  For example, Twenge and Campbell claim that easy monetary credit and the narcissist motivation of self-creating the “illusion of success” would account for nearly everyone struggling under financial debt.  They briefly talk about the “pleasure principle” of buying stuff colliding with the “reality principle” of rational decision-making, but simply subsume this under narcissism as well, rather than the irrational behavior and short-sightedness which is common to human behavior in buying most non-essential goods since the dawn of marketing.  Or in their discussion of American Idol, they claim that its popularity stems from the narcissistic appeal that the audience can affect the outcome (through voting), rather than simply the appeal of audience participation and voting for your favorites (which is counter-intuitive to the authors’ claims that narcissism is strictly about self-love and no empathy for others).

Further, their methodology seemed very shoddy at times.  In some instances, they would provide numbers and graphs to back up their claims, at other times they simply made general statements like “children now have more say in their birthday parties, which often leads to requests for lavish parties like those features on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 (pp. 171-172).”  Really? I’ve never known anyone to make such a ludicrous demand; and if such demands are made in rich families (say the top 10%), then that’s a very different case to make than wide-spread narcissism epidemic (as the authors are claiming).

Twenge and Campbell also play semantic games that undermine their point.  In the chapter about “uniqueness,” they argue that telling our kids they’re unique (or giving them unique—read non-modern-American—names) leads to narcissism because people are not unique.  Well, we have a “mundane uniqueness” (p.190), which includes our DNA and exact place in the space-time continuum, but this doesn’t make us “special.”  Okay…

They even cite “correlation” studies, apparently forgetting the mantra “correlation does not equal causation.”  The decline of pirates coincided with the rise in global temperatures, but that doesn’t mean we should bring back the life of piracy to combat greenhouse gases!

The authors’ method of treating this epidemic also lacks real bite.  It seems their sub-textual utopia would be to go back to the values of the 1950’s with the modern conveniences of today.  (Part of this is probably because they labor under the mythology of the “Greatest Generation” of WWII).  Oh, and we should also get us some real, authentic religion, fix our parenting styles, and change the way we use the internet and how the media operates.  Feasible, right?

Despite all my misgivings, they do have some good points.  We, as a culture, ought to be more empathetic, less self-centered, and more aware of our surroundings.  Unfortunately, in my experience, most of human nature trends in the opposite of these ideals, so what can we really do to affect change?  Usually, it takes a crisis of some magnitude to humble us and bind us together in solidarity (9/11).  But even that tends to be short-lived (a week after the towers fell, I saw street vendors selling photos of the planes crashing into the buildings; a year later, the solemnity of Ground Zero was nearly gone as evidenced by the tourists on their cell phones at the site).

Our best bet is to try and think critically before making our decisions, inject a dose of rationality into the thought process, and not let others get on our nerves, because let’s face it, in the grand scheme of things, each of us really doesn’t matter that much.  (Again, easier said than done).